Mystery creases in the Silk road?

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander
Image caption Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander

I don't know how closely Welsh Government ministers normally watch Welsh Liberal Democrat conferences. Not very, I suspect. A rare day out in the sun with the family - or stay in and watch a succession of speakers attack your alleged complacency and incompetence from the podium? A no-brainer surely.

Over the weekend, though, the Lib Dems gathering in Cardiff certainly sparked more interest than usual in the new open plan offices of Cathays Park - in particular, the speech from chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander.

In it, Mr Alexander went further than ever before in suggesting that the UK Government will implement the recommendations of the Silk Commission on tax and borrowing powers for Wales in full. In fact his line was so strong he managed to overshadow the Welsh party leader's speech on the same day - though somehow, you doubt she'll be complaining.

Here's the key passage from his speech to the conference:

"We need a new model of devolution for Wales - a model in which additional responsibility for raising revenues strengthens responsibility too.

"A model in which significant income tax powers unlock commensurate borrowing powers for Wales too.

"We are still working through our response to the Silk Commission with the Welsh government but I will not allow a response to Silk that doesn't meet those aspirations."

Those around Mr Alexander at the conference fringes said the speech had been carefully drafted and re-drafted before being delivered, which makes the nuances of that passage even more intriguing, in particular the use of the word "allow". Mr Alexander is a senior Treasury minister, who is directly in charge of the UK Government response to Silk. What, one wonders, is not "allowing" him to deliver what he wants, since he clearly feels so strongly on the issue?

Questioned afterwards, he emphasised the "complexity" of devolving tax powers and wouldn't be pushed any further. But if so, why not just say that in the speech? And his aides emphasised that the message was carefully written and aimed at a number of different people involved in the process.

Image caption Paul Silk presents his report to Welsh Secretary David Jones

So what's going on here?

First up, Whitehall sources say there's some surprise at the content of the speech, which, it's claimed by some, didn't go through the normal "pre-clearance" procedures. Sources close to Danny Alexander insist it went through exactly the same process as all other political speeches.

They use the word "premature" stressing that discussions are still on-going about how and what will be offered to Wales in terms of tax and borrowing. The Department for Transport, for example, has to be consulted over the devolution of Air Passenger Duty, likewise Environment over the Aggregates Levy. Senior figures within the Wales Office are adamant that there's no blockage from Gwydyr House and point to the frequency of their meetings with Mr Alexander over the issue.

If that's the case, was Danny Alexander looking towards Cathays Park as the source of the logjam, or the possible brakes on his aspirations?

Opposition parties are increasingly sensing what they see as a fracture developing between Welsh Labour AMs and MPs over a number of issues - the spat over the devolution (or not) of policing being the most recent and obvious. One senior opposition figure said they saw a "mega-split" over both Silk I and II developing between the Assembly and Westminster groups within Labour.

At his party's conference in Llandudno, Ed Miliband saw it as a debate that must be and will be had - rather than a more headline-grabbing split. Welsh Labour MPs accept there are differences, big ones on some issues but say they will quite simply have to be thrashed out. That's grown up politics they say, and will lead in the end to an agreed manifesto ahead of the General Election in 2015.

Image caption First Minister and Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones

But it's something that the Welsh Labour leader isn't exactly playing down. Speaking during First Minister's Questions last week, Carwyn Jones made rather an odd off the cuff remark.

In the context of Labour's decisions on the top rate of taxation during their 13 years in Government, he was asked by Plaid Cymru's Llyr Huws Gruffudd: "How can the people of Wales trust a Labour Party that says one thing here and does a very different thing at Westminster?"

To which Mr Jones responded: "We are a different party; this is the Welsh Labour Party. We have different views on devolution to our UK colleagues. That much is that."

Cue raised eyebrows. Why should the Welsh party leader go out of his way to point up splits within his own party? Let alone do it in response to a question from a Plaid AM, in the chamber, with his every word noted for posterity?

So on Silk implementation, are Carwyn Jones and his Cabinet colleagues being held back by their MPs at Westminster? Well, apparently not. There were more raised eyebrows last night at the Welsh Government's unusual decision to rush out a statement responding to Danny Alexander's conference speech:

"The First Minister has made clear that we want to see full implementation of the Silk Commission's recommendations, with legislation in this Parliament.

"This is a position supported unanimously by all parties in the Assembly. So it is good to hear the Chief Secretary setting out the UK Government's intention to implement Silk and we look forward to a formal announcement on the way forward as soon as possible.

"Silk recommends that there would need to be a referendum before powers to vary income tax rates were devolved to Wales. The First Minister agrees. The people of Wales should have the final say."

Not much room for doubt there - the message from Labour, at least in Cardiff Bay is "bring it on". So no blockage there either.

Which makes the Chief Secretary's apparent frustration even more baffling, where everyone involved in the process appears to be one hundred per cent in favour of what he wants - at least in public.